Tackling violence against women and girls in Libya: Safety for civil society must be guaranteed in Special Rapporteur’s visit

December 12, 2022

Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) welcomes the current visit of Ms. Reem Alsalem, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences to Libya from 11-20 December 2022. On this visit, we urge the Libyan authorities to offer their full support and cooperation, and guarantee safety for women and civil society to engage with the Special Rapporteur. LFJL also provides recommendations to consider on violence against women in Libya.

At the invitation of the Libyan authorities, the Special Rapporteur is to make a comprehensive assessment of issues related to her mandate on violence against women and girls (VAWG) in Libya and provide recommendations to the Libyan State on measures to prevent, combat and eliminate VAWG, including in the civil, cultural, economic, political and social spheres. 

The visit is preceded by only one other by the Special Rapporteur on internally displaced persons in 2018, whilst visits by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances remain postponed.

LFJL acknowledges the importance of the Special Rapporteur’s visit as a necessary opportunity to examine the human rights situation of women and girls within the Libyan context, with a view to address rampant impunity for crimes of VAWG, contribute to justice and redress for victims, and ensure the rights of women are protected. For this to be achieved, however, the safe engagement of victims, affected communities and civil society is crucial.

The safety of women and civil society is non-negotiable 

LFJL notes that in the Special Rapporteur’s recent Call for Inputs, she expressed her intention to convene meetings with representatives from civil society organisations, women’s organisations, community and religious leaders (where relevant), and groups of women and girls. However, against a backdrop of widespread attacks against women and the escalating crackdown on civil society in Libya, characterised by attacks on activists and human rights defenders, particularly women, LFJL is deeply concerned over the risk of reprisals for those who choose to meet and engage with the Special Rapporteur.

In addition to a myriad of institutional and social obstacles limiting women’s ability to freely and safety participate in civil, political and social spheres, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) such as killings, abductions, torture, rape, smear campaigns, and online violence, is causing women to retract further from public and political life.

A recent survey conducted by LFJL of practitioners working on SGBV in Libya, found that SGBV is widespread throughout the country, having worsened since the start of the conflict in 2011 at all levels: from the state-sanctioned violence to that by militias, as well as intimate family and partner violence. Nonetheless, SGBV remains massively underreported due to fear of reprisals, stigma and a lack of routes for redress.

Women in the public sphere face added constraints, particularly due to repressive regulations from Libyan authorities that prevent civil society from safely carrying out its work. These regulations severely violate freedoms of expression and association and grant the Libyan governmental Civil Society Commission (CSC) discretionary and overly intrusive powers to control the activities of civil society. This includes the ability to arbitrarily suspend and dissolve organisations and requiring organisations by law to obtain prior government approval to engage with international bodies and institutions such as the Special Procedures. A violation of this can expose them to criminal trials with penalties that may reach up to 15 years in prison.

This concerning environment is worsened by the recent ratification of the Anti-cybercrime law that gives the Libyan authorities free reign to silence freedom of expression in the online forms and impose disproportionate penalties.

The Libyan authorities and the Special Procedures must work together to ensure that civil society, and women specifically, are empowered to provide information to the Special Rapporteur, and to guarantee that they will be protected from reprisal or retaliation from the CSC, any other branch of the Libyan authorities, state-sanctioned security forces, and non-state armed groups as a prerequisite for the Special Rapporteur’s engagement with these groups.

Our recommendations on VAWG in Libya

In light of the above concerns and LFJL’s position as a member of the civil society working on human rights in Libya, we highlight the following recommendations to the Special Rapporteur in relation to women’s rights and the elimination of VAWG in Libya:

  1. LFJL underlines the importance to the Special Rapporteur of gathering information from women and women’s rights defenders across the East, West and South of Libya. The situation and challenges facing women in each of these regions are distinct, and this should be captured in the findings and reflected in the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations.
  1. Many women and girls in Libya face intersecting vulnerabilities, for example, women in the public sphere, women from minority ethnic backgrounds, and migrant and refugee women. Special attention should be given to reporting on the situation and needs of these women.
  1. The Special Rapporteur should put emphasis on gathering information on online violence against women in Libya – a growing issue documented by LFJL in a report exposing the use of harassment, threats, misogyny, text-based abuse, image-based sexual abuse, the use of deep fake pornography, doxing (publication of personal information such as a private address) and cyberstalking to silence women in the public sphere.
  1. Regarding the 2021 draft law on Combating Violence Against Women in Libya which criminalises all forms of violence against women in line with international standards, LFJL notes the lack of meaningful consultation with civil society during the initial review of the draft law, and the limited advocacy strategy for its adoption. As a result, we are deeply concerned that the law will be amended before its adoption. The Special Rapporteur must advocate to retain the detailed definitions and protection mechanisms for women included in the initial draft.
  1. Support and promotion for the rights of women in politics, including through their participation in free and fair elections and representation in government institutions, is a vital aspect of tackling VAWG in the long-term. The Special Rapporteur should consider this in her assessment and recommendations.  

Within the context of growing tensions, a persistent political stalemate, and rival governments tussling for political power, LFJL cautions against the instrumentalisation of the Special Rapporteur’s visit by the Libyan authorities to bolster international recognition and legitimacy. We urge the Special Rapporteur to prioritise the needs of women, civil society and all affected communities to make this important visit as impactful as possible.

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